Macromolecular Technology: What is it?

Bottom line up front: Macromolecular Technology is making big things from little things: Macro + Molecular.

The idea behind Macromolecular Technology had two main inspirations from the world of science fiction from the early 1990s. The first was the “liquid metal” of the T-1000 terminator in the movie “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” released in July of 1991. While watching the movie on release day in our local theater, I asked myself, “What if you could create other things with that technology: ships and tanks and spaceships that could blend perfectly into their background and rearrange themselves to adapt to changing situations like the T-1000? How cool would that be!” Problem was, the tech behind “liquid metal” was never explained in the movie. How did it work? What was the scientific basis for it? No answers.

About this time, I was in the early planning stages for the story that would become Andromeda Rhoades. I wanted the ships in my universe to be like the “liquid metal” of the T-1000, but I also wanted to use concepts based in real science.

As I tried to puzzle this out, I re-watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 3, Episode 1, originally aired September, 25, 1989), where nanomachines, a.k.a. “nanites,” escape into the Enterprise’s main computer and start causing all kinds of ruckus. The nanites eventually evolved into a “collective intelligence.”

Now, at that time, I spent a lot of time reading science and technology journals (geek, I know). I read an article (sorry, can’t remember which one) where a lab had created a molecule-sized machine and made it move on its own. That’s when I had my epiphany: What if it were possible to create large-scale structures with lots and lots of molecule-sized machines? Literally grow entire spaceships from trillions and trillions of techno-molecules, molecules that could rearrange themselves and their function in real time, thus creating an effect similar to “liquid metal.” Thus, the underlying concept for Macromolecular Technology was born.

Then, because I prefer hard science fiction, I had to flesh the concept out. How, exactly, does it work? Here, I turned to biology. When a sperm and egg combine to begin the process of growing a new life, they contain all the genetic instructions to create the final organism. That first cell creates many copies of itself, becoming a big ball of cells called a blastocyst (in mammals), that then becomes the embryo that implants in the uterine wall. The cells of the embryo specialize, becoming heart cells, brain cells, liver cells, etc. Eventually, the embryo becomes a fetus and the organism is born and grows into an adult. One fascinating element, though, is that every cell in the organism “remembers” how to be every other kind of cell. A heart cell can be turned back into a stem cell (the basic cell from the blastocyst) and then be changed into a liver cell.

What if we applied the same process to growing spaceships? Start with molecular machines that already contain all the instructions necessary to grow the final ship. Feed them raw materials so they can make trillions upon trillions of copies of themselves, basically a “stem-molecule.” When they reach a critical mass, the molecules begin to specialize and assemble themselves into the structure that will become the final shape, transforming themselves into fusion reactors, shield generators, conduits and plumbing, even weapons. Eventually, the ship reaches its intended size and shape and is “born.” The SIL vessels in The Local War universe continue their development as they experience the universe around them, much as children learn from their environment. The SIL, however, have the added advantage that they immediately have access to the collective memories of their race, significantly shortening the learning curve to full adulthood.

We’re not done, though. This is technology, not biology. The molecular machines are not fixed in function like an animal’s cells. They can rearrange themselves, alter their function. A macromolecular vessel contains lots of “spare” mass, of molecular machines, that makes up its hull. If it needs to manufacture new missiles to replace missiles it has fired, it can convert some of this spare mass into new missiles, the molecular machines of “hull” transforming into the molecular machines of “missile,” forming all the component structures that make a functioning missile. Likewise, if the ship suffers combat damage, it can replace damaged or destroyed functions. Lose a fusion reactor? Create a new one, if the ship has the required mass to do so. This has the added advantage that the ships require no human maintenance. They can repair wear and tear damage from exposure to radiation, interstellar dust impacts, etc. They just need occasional injections of new macromolecular material to replace lost mass.

It also means the ships—and spacecraft and surface vehicles—can alter their structure, their appearance, even their function. A spacecraft can alter its shape in real time to enter an atmosphere and fly, or it could even land and transform its function from spacecraft to ground assault vehicle, within the limits of available mass, keeping the same weapons just in a different physical layout. And much, much more.

Read “The Local War” series to see all the cool things Macromolecular Technology can do!

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